Inequality of School Achievement: Why the events of 2012 will not fix the problem

January 2013


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JOHN CLARK examines the long tail of underachievement through key events this year, including the class sizes controversy, charter schools debate, National Standards, and the Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement.

2012 was the year when the problem of inequality of educational achievement (or the ‘long tail of underachievement’ as it is often called) finally attracted the attention of politicians, policy makers and public commentators alike ─ although it has been a topic of major concern to teachers and academics for some time. Sadly, this sudden interest is laced with a considerable amount of ignorance, bad thinking and overt ideology such that any good which might emerge from the public debate has been overwhelmed by the search for a quick fix to a complex problem.

The problem itself is no simple matter. With respect to their learning, children do not start school on equal terms. They arrive with differences of many sorts: some can run faster than others, some can swim better than others, some can ride bicycles less wobbly than others. There are other differences: some can read better than others, some can think with numbers better than others, and some have a better understanding of their world than others. These differences can be attributed to differences in, for example, neural processing of information, family experiences, social activity and the like. Given all that happens to them in the five years before they begin school, such differences amongst children are to be expected.

What turns learning differences into inequality is the manner in which the differences are distributed across social criteria such as gender, ethnicity and social class. If learning and its achievement, as captured by such measures as NCEA, PIRLS and PISA, was spread across different groups in a fair and equitable way, then there might be less cause for concern, but it is not. Unfortunately, there is a marked tendency for some groups of children to perform disproportionately well and for other groups of children to perform disproportionately poorly. So, the data tells us that on average Pākehā children come out on top as the highest achieving cohort of students followed in descending order by Asian, then Māori, and finally Pasifika students.

This gives a crude overall picture which blurs around the edges: do the four groups all have the same spread over the full range of marks even if differentially skewed such that the Pākehā bulge is at the top end while the Māori bulge is at the lower end of the shared range of achievement or is it the case that there is a sliding scale whereby Pākehā children occupy, for example (just to make the point), from a hypothetical 100 (taken as the top mark) down to 70, Asian from 90 down to 60, Māori from 80 down to 50 and Pasifika from 70 down to 40?

But there is a little more detail to be had: even if children of a similar kind should cluster together, the basis of the grouping can provide no insight into the causes of the achievement being what it is – this will require detailed examination of what in particular has contributed to this child of a certain group doing particularly well and others of the same group doing comparatively poorly. Why is it that some Māori students do very well, albeit fewer of them than their Pākehā peers, while other Māori students do poorly? It cannot be because they are Māori (or Pasifika); it must be due to something far more complex in nature that only a careful unravelling of an intricate set of causes can reveal.

However, this need for a sophisticated theoretical explanation of the inequality of school achievement has not deterred policy makers and their political masters from embarking on a programme of action to remedy the situation. Indeed, there were five very significant events which in 2012 did much to shape (or perhaps mis-shape) the road to equality: class sizes, charter schools, reporting of national standards data, Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement, and the Secretary of Education’s Foreword to the Ministry of Education’s Annual Report. Whatever other features each of these had, they had one thing in common: a professed concern about the ‘long tail of underachievement’ and the need to do something about it. Whether they amount to a solution to the problem, or merely contribute to the problem, remains to be seen but the signs are not good.

Class Sizes

The idea of increasing class sizes, thereby reducing the number of teachers and using the salary savings for professional development of remaining teachers to raise the quality of teaching which could lead to higher levels of student achievement, had its origins in the Treasury Briefing to the incoming government following the re-election of the National-led coalition government in 2011. Mr Makhlouf, the Treasury Secretary, managed to persuade the Minister of Finance, Bill English, the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, and the Secretary of Education, Lesley Longstone, that this was a sound policy direction to take and so successful was he that its adoption was announced in the 2012 Budget. As we now know, it was not well received by teachers who pointed to the unexpected consequences befalling technology teachers in intermediate schools; but what really led to the intervention of the Prime Minister and the u-turn announced by the Minister of Education was the perceived electoral backlash of negative parental feedback.

Charter Schools

The 2011 election spawned a second development with the National-ACT agreement to establish charter schools to, amongst other things, shorten the long tail of underachievement by allowing parents in certain areas of social deprivation to choose whether to send their children to a centrally-regulated state school or a de-regulated ‘privatised’ state school. At year’s end no such school had been established and with the criteria for their formation being in flux, it remains a moot point with charter schools as to which is more important to ACT and its leader, John Banks: the ideological commitment to privatisation and parental choice or social justice by reducing inequality, for it is hard to see how the two can be aligned in any satisfactory sort of way.

Reporting of National Standards Data

Along with better reporting of student achievement to parents, national standards were also designed with the express purpose of providing data fit for the purpose of raising the achievement of underperforming students. The results of the first cut at the data proved to be far from satisfactory, with even the Prime Minister calling the data ‘ropey’ ,which was hardly a glowing testament of the robustness of the data, due in no small measure to the failure of the Ministry of Education to provide clear and uniform criteria for schools to act on. This reflects a libertarian attitude to letting the chips fall where they may rather than a more interventionist hand on the tiller to steer educational policy and practice in desirable directions. In 1939, Fraser and Beeby knew exactly what this meant; sadly, the current Minister and Secretary of Education do not.

Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement

Following the fiasco of the class-sizes policy, the Minister of Education established the Forum, composed of representatives from a very wide range of organisations across the education sector, to meet regularly on the matter of underachievement and report back on the key issues which must be addressed in four areas: quality teaching; smarter use of achievement information at individual, school and national levels; strengthening the performance and accountability of schools and education agencies for student achievement; learning environments that are fit for purpose in the 21st century. The last meeting for the year was scheduled for 17 December so any report is unlikely to be released until later in 2013. The Ministry of Education has placed meeting documents on their website; it remains to be seen whether the collective wisdom of so many people attending six meetings will really raise achievement or merely served the ulterior political purpose of dampening down the professional criticism of government policy.

Secretary of Education’s Foreword to Ministry Annual Report

In her foreword to the Ministry of Education’s annual report for 2012, the former Secretary of Education Lesley Longstone commented that “our top learners are counted among the best in the world, and, on average, our learners perform well” and then went on to say “however, the system is still-underperforming for Māori learners and Pasifika learners, and learners from communities with significant social and economic challenges”.

Whether it is the education system that is under-performing or those who use it who are under-performing, or a combination of the two, requires a far deeper level of analysis than the Secretary seems willing to give the matter. In a Radio New Zealand Morning Report interview in late October she said that New Zealand is seen internationally as high-performing but characterised by inequality and in order for schools to be truly high-performing they must deliver quality results for all children. However, the causal connection between quality results for all and reducing inequality is not one which can be easily established, if for no other reason than quality is one thing and equality is, conceptually, quite another and their empirical link is very tenuous indeed.

Then, in a Herald interview in early November, she was reported as saying that while some people attributed the disparity in achievement to poverty and was quoted as saying “I don’t agree with that analysis. I do agree that poverty makes a difference, but what I don’t agree with is that that explains everything because all those OECD countries have poverty”. On this she is correct: poverty is but one element of a larger causal set, and other causal factors also come into play; but it is a major contributor, if not the leading one, in a complex empirical explanation of inequality of school achievement, and the problem with her position is that it leads to the conclusion, drawn by many, that since poverty as a cause lies beyond the school and there are other factors within school which contribute, albeit in lesser ways, to the inequality, then it is easier for the education sector just to concentrate on the within-school considerations and park poverty where it belongs, as someone else’s problem.

Those who think this way would be well advised to read the recently published book Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools and Children’s Life Chances, edited by Duncan and Murname and funded/published by the Russell Sage and Spencer Foundations. Poverty might not be everything but it goes a long way to explaining the inequality of school achievement.

The Events of 2012: Will They Have Any Causal Effect on Inequality of Achievement?

The events of 2012 outlined above certainly have had a significant political impact and generated both thoughtful analysis and intemperate debate. They are unlikely to have much in the way of any causal impact on the inequality of school achievement, for one very simple reason. The causal set consists of a complex mix of within – school and beyond – school factors, which come together in various ways to account for why this or that child does not achieve at school as well as they might. So, any reasonable solution to the inequality will require interventions that tackle those particular features of children’s lives which most adversely affect their school achievement. Such interventions will, primarily, focus on the beyond-school factors which have a marked tendency to be those with the greatest impact. Yet it is obvious that all that politicians and policy makers seem willing to address are those within-school factors which, by comparison, have a lesser impact.

The difficulty is compounded by the ideological commitment to the binary dualism of within-and beyond-school factors, which makes it relatively easy to embrace the former and ignore the latter. We must rethink how we think about the problem: employing a continuum of distal (distant) factors at one end and proximal (close) factors at the other end might compel us to place all the empirical parts of a unified explanation into their appropriate place so that all are taken into account when determining the causes of and the solutions to the inequality of school achievement. Given the very selective focus on just some of the lesser causal factors and the deliberate exclusion of more fundamental causes, none of the events of 2012 seem destined to make much progress on solving this, our most intractable educational problem.

John Clark is Associate Professor at Massey University’s School of Educational Studies.